A friend of mine in New York asked me if I could get an autographed baseball from New York Mets player Jose Reyes. He wanted it for his grandson who is crazy about Jose Reyes. I promised him I would.
That was two years ago.
The New York Mets do their spring training across town from where I live. Lasting about five weeks, it’s a pretty intense period that can make or break careers and shatter dreams. The players are there to perform and prove that they are worthy of being in the big leagues. The coaches keep a careful eye on multiple players and every nuance from changeable habits to potential problems. It requires a tremendous amount of concentration. This all happens under the watchful eye of a hungry public.
Each year, thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Florida and over to the fields to watch the players gear up for a new season of the all American game. Some observers are very vocal (as in rude); they yell shit at players in the batting cage as if they know better what the batter needs to do. It can be disconcerting to a player that is trying to survive and even more so to a player that has not yet his expected stride. I’d like to see Jose Reyes show up at one of these asshole’s place of employment and tell him how he should solve the deficit or fix that engine light that keeps coming on.
On a recent outing to the fields, I just couldn’t help myself. After witnessing (as in not being able to avoid listening to) one of these “experts” continuously yelling (read “screaming”) his “advice” to every batter in the cage, I asked him, “Hey, when (as in “if”) you attend a play on Broadway, do you yell up to the actors on stage and tell them how to deliver their lines?”
“Well, no” he sneered (in that harsh/dumb New York accent that has become a caricature of itself and annoys everyone), “but WE pay these guyses (yes, you read that correctly, pronounced like "guises") salaries” he continued.
“Same thing for the actors, dontcha think?” I queried. Even the coach and the player in the cage had big grins after that. One for the Gippper (cartouche just doesn’t sound right, does it?)
Most people that attend spring training (thankfully) go for the trill of the game and the promise of warm weather. They just enjoy the feeling of being in close proximity to their heroes or as near as possible to the cracking wood, the stray balls and the manicured lawns.
Baseball brings back the innocence of childhood and the eternal hope that the next time at bat will yield a home run. Baseball is the sport of summer and dreams. No other sport allows this kind of public access in such close proximity prior to the season of play.
Unlike the old days where players were extremely accessible, today, for various reasons, the players are held on tight leashes and rarely have time to engage with the fans. In fact, they are somewhat discouraged. The drills are grueling and scheduled down to the minute. A lot of kids (up to the age of 90) leave the field disappointed when they go home empty handed; without a tossed ball or an autograph of one of their favorite players. Like batting, it’s a law of averages when it comes to meeting a player and getting him to stop and sign your program or t-shirt. There are plenty of swings and even more misses. There are more shutouts than home runs. It’s a cruel world out there.
One of the coaches for the Mets is a dear friend of mine. I’ve known Sandy Alomar Sr. for years. We communicate more often via e-mail or by phone when the season is in full swing than when he is down here for spring training. We have dinner at least once during that pre-season race to the pennant, if we are lucky.
We have a friendship that is as close to Zen in description as possible. We talk about intent. We understand cause and effect. We look at the entire field of life but keep our eyes on the ball. We do this with just every subject. We break it down to its core and meaning and work from the inside out. We rarely talk baseball. Last year’s firing of Willie Randolph was an exception. I think we were both devastated.
Even though the chances are slim that we will have nothing more than a brief chat when I watch the boys of summers, at least once or twice during spring training, I head over to the field to watch the magic that is baseball. More often than not, Sandy will reach his fingers through the cage as he changes fields, call me “loca”, exchange some words in Spanish and then make the secret sign we have shared over the years. He’ll leave tickets for a game if I ask. He will always ask about my mom and my sister; he has known them for almost 30 years.
When my friend in New York made the request for the autographed baseball, his grandson was three. He told me that this kid lived and breathed Jose Reyes. There are probably tens of thousands of little boys that feel the exact same way about Jose or some other player. It’s impossible to grant wishes for all these kids and still stay in the game and play like a superstar.
I was out at the field with my sister about ten days ago and saw Sandy from afar. As I watched batting practice, I called his cell phone and left him a voice mail reminding him of the request that I had made last year (and the year before) for that Jose Reyes autographed ball. I was motivated by the promise I had made to my friend John in New York. I wanted to deliver the goods. I was aware that for two seasons I had failed to close the deal.
The day before yesterday, I received a call from Sandy and he told me that he was in my neighborhood and wanted to drop by to give me the autographed ball, dedicated to “Charlie”. He was at my house a few minutes later. We caught up briefly and he went on his way back to spring training. We are supposed to have dinner some time this week.
I e-mailed my friend John in New York and told him that I had gotten the much-coveted autographed baseball and that I would bring it up on my next visit in April, unless he wanted me to send it in the mail right away. He responded almost immediately with this:
“You can't believe how blessed this is. Charlie will be going in for casting his leg next week and then, the end of the month surgery and will be casted and in a wheel chair for 8 weeks. This is probably the greatest gift any of us could have expected at this time.” (Sic)
I was curious as to what was prompting Charlie’s surgery. I e-mailed John back asking him and received this reply:
“Charlie was born with a club foot and has had it casted several times and had one surgery as an infant. Didn't work. Now, he is of an age where they believe it will take.”
I e-mailed Sandy immediately after and told him how little Charlie would never realize how his dream came true by virtue of the fact that he had gotten Jose to sign a ball just for him. Charlie’s love of baseball (and Jose Reyes) would forever be cemented by Sandy’s single, random act of generosity and kindness. I thanked him and told him to share the story with Jose and send my thanks to him as well.
Of course, the ball is going into the mail today. Along with the following e-mail I received back from Sandy:
“Tell Charlie that Jose is in the world class of baseball players and sure to be more than pleased that he granted his wish. On my part, tell him that I’m praying for him to come up well, ready to play and have fun. It’s always a pleasure to make someone happy and Charlie should understand that Jose did this from his heart.”
You can’t get much better than that.
Sometimes, professional athletes get a bad rap. In these uncertain times, it’s nice to know that real life heroes can still be found in the field of dreams known as baseball. If only it could happen as often off the field too. Sometimes, it does.
This is nothing more than a feel-good story that I wanted to share and to let you know that it's okay to dream and have wishes come true. Sometimes, they really do. It's as American as mom and pop and apple pie.